MVP should be about learning not doing
If there is one word that became universal among doers in this ending decade is MVP. Although this acronym for Minimum Viable Product was first coined by Frank Robinson in 2001, Eric Ries made it famous by making it a core concept in the Lean Startup methodology from its homonym book published in 2011.
Nowadays, the MVP became more famous than the Lean Startup. Its use spread beyond garages and accelerators and became universal in companies with all sizes. It is used by anyone building anything, not necessarily with the idea behind its use in the methodology. But, is it bad? Through our research on startups, we observed that this misunderstanding can be harmful.
First, let’s take a look of how the goal of an MVP is characterized by Ries:
[An MVP] helps entrepreneurs start the process of learning as quickly as possible. It is not necessarily the smallest product imaginable, though; it is simply the fastest way to get through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop with the minimum effort. (Eric Ries, The Lean Startup, 2011)
And how he summarizes:
[Its] goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses. So, in Lean Startup, an MVP is not a product version but a way to test your assumptions about the product and potential customers. It should be about learning not doing. But, a quick search on the web makes us doubt that such understanding is the common sense. Several guides tell how you should develop your product and which features you should include or not. And how bad is that? Are there any consequences?
To investigate that, we, a group of researchers from the University of Bolzano, Italy, and PUCRS, Brazil, applied a questionnaire to 34 practitioners. Our results showed that the most common concept associated to MVP is a version of the product with limited features. We also observed that those respondents that made this association gave examples of MVPs with the intent of delivering something rather than learning. Doing so, these teams might end up wasting time and resources developing a product no user wants.
The main message of Lean Startup is learning through experiments. Don’t let the word product in MVP fool you.
Probably, the word Product is responsible for such misunderstanding. But, if we see it in Lean Startup context, we can clarify its meaning. For instance, Ries describes several types of MVPs for which you don’t have to develop almost anything of the final solution: an explainer video, a wizard of Oz, a concierge MVP, and so on. A nice example is Dropbox which MVP was a video showing how the product would work. At that moment, the team did not have anything coded.
An MVP should be an experiment to test an assumption you have about your idea.
According to the Lean Startup, you should develop a series of MVPs to test several assumptions before committing resources and time to start developing your final solution. In this way, if things do not go as planned, you save time and money. You reduce waste what the Lean philosophy is all about!
The first step to do an MVP is to identify on which hypotheses your product is grounded. Then, you should prioritize these hypotheses according to how critical they are to your idea. Finally, you create an MVP that will help you validate that hypothesis: an experiment. It can be a landing page, a survey, a concierge MVP, or any other artifact that can help you assess your hypothesis. More importantly, almost never a limited version of the final product.